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Queens Library celebrates Kwanzaa in East Elmhurst

Photo by Rich Bockmann
By Rich Bockmann

Kwanzaa is a seven-day celebration of African-American culture, so it is more than fitting that for the past 28 years the Langston Hughes Community Library and Cultural Center in East Elmhurst has observed the holiday.

“From Dec. 26 through Jan. 1, it’s seven days celebrating seven African-American principles, or Nguzo Saba,” Andrew Jackson, executive director of the library branch, said at the fete Saturday.

Kwanzaa was created by Maulana Karenga, a professor of African studies at California State University, Long Beach, in 1966 as a celebration recognizing the values of African culture that build and unite African-American communities.

On each of the holiday’s seven days, families gather to reflect or demonstrate one of seven African principles: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

The celebration culminates with a feast and gift giving and the East Elmhurst library was filled with the sounds of the Songhai Djeli ensemble this year as the top floor was filled with tables displaying cultural gifts.

Aimee Williams recently started her own business, Blue Angel Creations, selling items incorporating her photography and poetry, including tissue holders, greeting cards and quilts.

“The fabrics come from all over Africa,” she explained. “I think fabric really speaks to people. You find it across all cultures. It binds us together.”

Desi Robinson said Kwanzaa was not something her family discussed, let alone celebrated, as she was growing up.

“I come from Southern black people who are all about Christmas,” she said.

It was when she went away to college in Connecticut that she met Maulana Karenga, Kwanzaa’s creator, and started looking into its principles.

“I discovered Kwanzaa through my own investigations of politics, religion and society,” she said. “That was about 20 years ago. It’s much more universal now.”

Robinson had a table set up promoting her radio program on 99.5 FM WBAI covering women’s health and lifestyle. She said she planned to mark the holiday by giving some of the vegetables she grows in the farm in her backyard as gifts.

“Because I’m an educator and a food advocate, I believe there’s a lot of meaning in offering foods, whether you celebrate Kwanzaa or not.”

Jackson explained that the earth and food are important symbols to the tradition. Each family puts one ear of corn on its table for each child and a ceremonial cup is used to pour libation onto the earth, though since there was no natural earth in the library Jackson used a saucer.

He also said books make great gifts as they symbolize the enlightenment of freed slaves who learned to read.

“[Children] can read about themselves in books and know they have not been left out of history,” he said. “And the perfect place to do that is in your library.”

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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